The Conversation Overheard — with Jericho Brown & Leslie Anne Mcilroy

by Leslie Anne Mcilroy


Leslie: Thank you for agreeing to have a conversation with HEArt Online as part of our inaugural issue, celebrating our re-launch. As you know, our goal is to publish well-crafted, risk-taking, powerful poetry that challenges (indeed fights) discrimination and promotes social justice — what some would call political poetry.

What has been interesting in the relaunch is that the notion of what “political” poetry is variable. Many say that the very act of writing a poem/creating a piece of art/music is political in that it asks others to see the world as you present it.

I am not sure I am there. My gauge has always been if I walk away from a poem understanding something I could not in my own shoes. Have I been let in? Have I witnessed some truth outside of my skin? Have I changed or questioned my own set of beliefs. Maybe I have been reaffirmed. And does the poem move from the personal to the universal?

What are your thoughts about the current climate of art — poetry in particular — and its power/voice. How do you define poetry that calls upon the reader to re-understand the world? How is that different from say a love poem or a poem about loss, heartache or getting drunk? Not that these things are mutually exclusive …


Jericho: One of my most recent joys has been listening to Joy Katz and Erika Meitner discuss Lucille Clifton’s “the lost baby poem” here Happy Complicated Mother's Day. Listening to this conversation, hearing Meitner’s thinking as she pauses and stutters to say what she means as exactly as possible honors Clifton’s work in the best way and enhances the humungous crush I have on Erika Meitner.

The poem is about abortion, and it’s not the only poem about abortion Clifton wrote. It’s also about being poor and about being a black woman in relationship to black men and about being a mother. I’ve always loved the way it seamlessly turns toward prayer at its end.

I think the poem is a GREAT POEM, and I think the conversation these two women have with a very relaxed (I almost said smug, but that would be rude … he actually sounds like a man you want so badly to convince that you sleep with him) Curtis Fox continues to teach me that there is no such thing as universal.  They see things in the poem I have never seen because they are mothers, and they read some other things quite differently than I do. And that last clause is prolly cuz ahm BLACK … or because they are not black —I almost said “because they are white,” but nobody white seems to want to admit to being white anymore. At any rate, it think that stuff is part of what makes this such a good poem full of what Keats called “negative capability.”

You’ll hate me for this, Les, but I don’t “define poetry that calls upon the reader to re-understand the world.” I think that every poem should call upon the reader to re-understand the world. If the poem doesn’t do it, then the conversation overheard about the poem should. I listen to Meitner and Katz and see my own mother and all of Clifton’s writing in ways that I never saw before this past Mother’s Day.

I imagine you’d like me to define political poetry, but every poem either supports or challenges the status quo. Our conversations about a poem reveal for us just how political the poem is or is not.


Leslie: You write a lot about domestic violence, particularly in your own family, and the complexities of that. This, to me, speaks to the underserved population of women and children that suffer at the hands of a power they are not in a position to refute/escape/even survive in many cases (this is not to suggest that men, too, are not the victims of such discrimination). It is a huge inequity — economic, gender, age, culture — that is prevalent and under-reported, rarely witnessed or heard. I am speaking specifically of poems like “Again” from your book Please and “Another Elegy,” recently published in Volt. These poems convey a sense of normalcy/acceptance by the victims and their families, a resigned understanding, yet a plea for change.

Having received numerous poems that address violence as a tool to keep others in their place, I am wondering how you see your own poems contributing to this necessary conversation.


Jericho: You know, I just realized that among all the other things from which I am in recovery, I am forever in recovery from my father beating my mother. He shouldn’t have done that, and my sister and I shouldn’t have seen it happen.  And, I shouldn’t have allowed such violence to manifest in my own romantic relationships once I became an adult.

In the Baldwinian sense: James Baldwin — On Being Poor, Black & Gay, it’s probably the best thing that could have happened for my work because it gives me something over which to obsess. It makes me see every relationship between a man and a woman as a possible archetypal relationship between men and women.
And, I don’t think there are enough poems in the world about just how violent our love lives often are. I’m happy to help with this.

I think of writing as contributing to a very long tradition and that very young writers should look forward to the day that they begin thinking about what they are contributing to something so vast and varied.

Leslie: As an African-American gay man, you write starkly about relationships with other men, exploring the dynamics of a love that is currently under huge political debate, as indeed it has always been, but now with perhaps real hope of change, with Delaware, Rhode Island and Minnesota joining the roster of 13 states this month that allow same-sex marriage.

It is only occasionally that your write very pointedly about homophobia, as in “Lunch” from Please and maybe “Like Father,” which is not homophobia so much I think as a unique understanding of the difficulty your father had/has? with your sexual identity. Your recent poem in The New Yorker,Colosseum” is a gorgeous tribute to love, with a beautifully crafted element of the pain and suffering endured to get to this living place.

It reminds me of when we first began publishing HEArt in 1997 and sought to reprint poems from Brother to Brother: New Writing by Gay Black Men, edited by Essex Hemphill and Joseph Beam, who died of AIDS before its completion in 1991. In this collection, the struggle of being a gay man was clearly compounded by the impact of being Black, suggesting that the African American culture imposes an added layer of intolerance. To be a gay black man, you are stepping not just outside gender norms, but cultural norms. The taboo is heightened. Do you feel this is true — still true? Are there any writers who influenced you in a way that allowed you to write your truth so freely, as you should?

 

Jericho: Thanks, Les. I’m glad you like “Colosseum.” It was one of those rare gifts we poets get: I dreamed the poem, woke up in the middle of the night, and wrote it down in the notes app of my phone.  Line breaks and all, the thing was as fully formed as Athena, and so I have a special relationship to that poem …

Yes, I think the taboo is heightened. Hemphill is probably my biggest influence.  His poems were first shown to me by Rudolph Byrd when I was 19 years old. I fell in love with the work, and I’m pretty sure those poems led me to understanding that what I was feeling wasn’t a (very long) phase.

There’s also, of course, Forrest Hamer and Carl Phillips. Have you read Hamer’s “Annual Visit of the Quiet, Unmarried Son” or Phillips’ “King of Hearts” and “The Hustler Speaks of Places?” How could I not want to play in that field!

I think my first summer at Cave Canem being around poets like Ronaldo Wilson and John Keene and Reginald Harris and Marvin K. White and Bakar Wilson was a huge influence. For years, I couldn’t give a public reading without tilting my head and taking on Ronaldo Wilson’s voice. At the time, it seemed they were all SO gay and so fucking fine with it. I had never seen anything like that before then. More than that, I had never seen other people engage gay people as if those gay people were whole and human. That happened at Cave Canem. I kept thinking that if it happened there I could create an environment for myself where it happens all the time. …

I want to add, though, that it’s not easy, Les. I still get scared … particularly nervous before readings and when choosing what to read. And that’s why I do it. The fear is where the language is for me. I think that goes back to having such a violent father and growing up with lots of things to say but knowing better than saying any of them.

I’m not saying that to be proscriptive. I don’t think your father has to hit you for you to be a good poet, and I don’t think every poet has to mess around with fear.  It just works for this poet. I do think, though, that no poet should be outlawing anything as subject matter.  I don’t think we get to choose our subjects in the same way that we don’t get to choose our parents.

 

Leslie:  Finally, I want to ask you about this overall feeling I get when I read your work, something that I am left with that maybe doesn’t point to a particular poem but all of them — the conglomerate essence. You do not fall in/excuse yourself/wallow/lash. Despite the injury/wound/struggle, you don’t give in to the ugly. For example, from “Lion” in Please: “the mouth/ I don’t close, his head in my throat.” Some might see this as weakness (“How bite-less I feel”), but I see it as a strength: to get that close to ugliness to understand the way it moves, the way it looks in the mirror but never let it take hold of you. It’s brave. Even in poems like “Track 4: Reflections,” there is a glory, a rising above despite or maybe because of the knowing with your heart just how ugly things are/can be. Transformative. Agree with me. Disagree with me, but tell me how you walk this line in your poetry. Anger would be too easy. I’m thinking of naming this article that.

 

Jericho:

This is very kind, but I wonder if I have enough in print yet to say even to myself what I do in my own writing that makes it particular to me. I prefer to hear readers like you say I have this strength since you — the affected — would know.

I never actually feel “brave.” I mostly feel excited when I’m working or hopeful (anxious?) when I’m not. I don’t agree or disagree with you. And I don’t want to tie down my own poems’ meanings by saying what they mean. I imagine a good reader like you can do that for me and for others interested in discussing the work.

Here’s what I know. I’m an elegiac poet and a joyous person. Either of those things could change, but that’s the truth for now. I really do spend most of my time laughing and smiling.


Photo by John Lucas

Photo by John Lucas

Jericho Brown is an Assistant Professor at Emory University. His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in journals and anthologies including, The American Poetry Review, Boston Review, The New Yorker, Oxford American, The New Republic, and The Best American Poetry.  His first book, PLEASE (New Issues, 2008), won the American Book Award, and his second book, THE NEW TESTAMENT, is forthcoming from Copper Canyon Press.